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Writing my book The Cycladic Spirit


Work as a peer in the House of Lords
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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It was in 1991 that I received completely out of the blue, a letter from the Prime Minister, John Major, saying would I agree to become a working peer in the House of Lords. I didn't quite know what a working peer was supposed to be, but it's somebody supporting the government. He was obviously a Conservative Prime Minister. I was a Conservative, and it was expected that if I went into the House of Lords, I would be supporting the government actively so I thought that sounded a very great honour but I rather doubted if I would have time to do it because I was Master of Jesus College and the head of the Department of Archaeology and that seemed like quite a busy life already, so I consulted, I consulted the government Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, and I consulted Ken Clarke who was a friend from Cambridge days, who was by that time, Minister of Education and also Leon Brittan whom we'd kept in touch with, who was by that time I think already Home Secretary and so what did it mean to be a working peer? How much time did one have to put in, and initially the answer was we think you should have to come to the House of Lords and take part in debates two days a week. And I thought, well, really, I can't possibly do two days a week, so I actually wrote to John Major and said terribly sorry, very great honour but I don't really think I could do two days a week because there's just too much to do here in Cambridge. And then I had a phone call from Richard Ryder saying, well, maybe one day a week would be enough, and that was followed up by Ken Clarke so I was able to write another letter saying, well, then I'm advised that one day would be enough so I'd be delighted to accept this great honour. So in 1991 I went into the House of Lords and I've never been a hugely active person there because it is about one day a week that I go, but I did devote the best part of one sabbatical term that I was owing to me as it were and I spent a good deal of that time in the House of Lords, getting to see how things worked and there had been a number of quite important issues that have cropped up. At that time there was a move to have, to repeal the old treasure trove legislation, which had grown up over the years from the medieval period and it meant that any gold or silver that was found in, in England was automatically the property of the Crown and there had to be a coroner's inquest and if it had been delivered with the intention of recovering it, then that was a different legal situation than if it had been buried, deposited to be left there as an offering or whatever it might be and so one was having endless coroners' inquests, trying to work out the intentionality of people who'd lost or buried gold or silver 2,000 years ago and the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. And the Earl of Perth, Lord Perth in the House of Lords, had got interested in this problem and had got private members' legislation going through and most governments rather react against private members' legislation and the Conservative government wasn't very different, but Lady Trumpington, Baroness Trumpington was the government spokesman in the House of Lords and she became rather sympathetic towards it and then the legislation was revised somewhat and then finally the, the Ancient Monuments' Bill was passed, became the Ancient Monuments or rather Treasure Act. And that changed the legislation in an effective way and brought in much more sensible procedures and out of that, and out of further initiatives, rose the portable antiquities recording scheme. All of this was contemporary with the growth of metal detecting in Britain, which has in some ways presented quite a lot of problems because the much greater number of finds, of metal finds being made has put pressure on the system and the portable antiquities scheme encourages finders to report their discoveries and encourages if there's, if it's treasure, if it's gold, silver, indeed the scope of the Treasure Act has been increased somewhat, then it makes it much easier for them to report the discovery and if it's claimed by the state, if it's felt it should go to the British Museum or some local museum, they continue to get the full market value so that is a significant improvement I think. And I was much involved with that and then shortly after I went into the House of Lords, there was a Higher Education Bill, which Ken Clarke was trying to pilot through and it was felt by many of us, that although it had some merits, it really was reducing the freedom of action, the independence of the universities and so there were quite a lot of hard fought amendments in the House of Lords and I got very involved in that. And although I was a Conservative peer, I was anxious about the independence of the universities so I was quite willing to join in with the Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats if something seemed unwise. There was one clause that was going to restrict the freedom of operation of student unions that the students got very anxious over and really wasn't very wise, but with a little discussion it was possible to see how the government could achieve their objectives, which were not unreasonable, without somehow putting a blanket on the freedom of action of the student unions so I got quite involved in those issues and so I was spending quite a lot of time in London then. That was the time that Norman Lamont was Chancellor of the Exchequer, so he and Rosemary said, well, do come and stay any time and since I was spending quite a lot in London, I'd just give them a ring and go into Downing Street and stay at number 11 Downing Street and so I was seeing quite a lot of government affairs at that time. And a lot of these people of course had been friends from Cambridge days. Leon Brittan spoke at our wedding and had been a close friend since then, and David Frost, he's not a political figure as such, he, he was someone who again I got to know well in Cambridge. We founded a, a dining club, the Cabal, and used to have very extravagant dinner with guests about once a term so we've always been invited to David Frost's very entertaining parties and so, quite a lot of the- the politicians in that context also.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 7 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009